The Concept of Dignity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1564

In Neil Simon's play Brighton Beach Memoirs, there is an underlying theme overlooked by many critics. Each major character in the play is driven by or looks for some measure of dignity in his or her life. This measure of self-worth is an important part of why the Jerome-Morton household survives despite the cramped quarters and the economic duress of the Great Depression. The quest for human dignity does not take the same form for each character, but the variety of experiences makes the tapestry of Brighton Beach Memoirs a rich composite of the problems people face to this day.

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For Stanley Jerome, the eighteen-and-a-half-year-old brother of narrator Eugene Jerome, the quest takes on several forms. This is fitting for a young man on the verge of adulthood. In Act I, Stanley nearly loses his job when he stands up for a co-worker, defending the man's honor in the face of what Stanley perceives as an injustice. This dilemma makes Stanley heartsick, but because his family needs the money so desperately, he ultimately swallows his pride and writes (or has Eugene write) the letter of apology.

While Stanley's sweeping dirt on Mr. Stroheim's shoes is immature, the rest of his actions show that he is a young man willing to speak up when he perceives that an injustice has occurred. Jobs were hard to come by during the Depression, but Stanley's instincts put dignity before commerce. If it were not for the Depression and the scarcity of jobs, it is implied that Stanley would not have apologized. In Act II, Stanley's dignity-related dilemma takes on a much different form. It is a week later, and Stanley has lost his entire week's salary at a poker game. To save face with his family, Stanley decides that he will join the Army, rationalizing that he will earn more money as a soldier, especially when he makes sergeant. He promises Eugene that he will send all his salary home. Though his parents are angry when they learn about the lost salary, they are relieved when Stanley returns having not enlisted. Though Stanley thought he could find dignity in escaping, he decides that his family will benefit more from having funds now rather than later. Simon implicitly argues that to be dignified is to face up to one's responsibilities, even when mistakes are made and great shame is the result.

One of the reasons Stanley's salary is so important in Act II lies in the fact that his father, Jack Jerome, has had a heart attack and cannot work for several weeks. Like Stanley, much of Jack's quest for dignity lies in his ability to support his family. Jack must do everything he can, no matter what the cost to his health, to pay the bills for the seven members of his household and ensure some quality of life. The weight of the family's dignity lies on his shoulders. In Act I, Jack loses his night job when the owner goes bankrupt. Jack worked as a party favor salesman to nightclubs and hotels. To compensate for this loss, Jack does several things. First, he takes as many noisemakers and party favors as he can carry to try to compensate for loss of income. Second, Jack finds another job, driving a taxi cab. This employment situation compounded by constant worry leads to his heart attack.

Though almost all of Jack's time and energy is sapped by his constant work, he does not neglect his duties as father and head of the household. He works hard to maintain the dignity of his family economically, but he does not forget their personal quests for dignity. Everyone looks to Jack for guidance. Stanley consults him on his work dilemma mentioned earlier. He also gives Nora counsel on her hard decision, and shows his support for both Kate and Blanche during their times of trouble. Because Nora's father is dead, and her mother will not make a decision about her audition, Jack steps in, though...

(The entire section contains 3070 words.)

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